Reflections on the last few weeks in UK politics, by John Medhurst, author of the forthcoming No Less Than Mystic: A History of the Russian Revolution for a 21st Century Left (out August 2017).
This is a British revolution.
As I write, the last few weeks have seen:
- An apparently secure and unassailable Tory Prime Minister, Theresa May, call a General Election that looked set to produce a Tory landslide and the annihilation of the Labour Party.
- The Labour Party respond with a bold, radical manifesto that promised nationalisation of privatised services such as the Royal Mail, energy companies, the buses and railways; a 50% tax rate for the top 5% of earners allied to increased Corporation tax to fund the NHS; scrapping of student Tuition Fees, the re-introduction of Grants and the cancellation of all existing student debt; a ban on Fracking; and state-led public investment to grow the economy, including a million new homes and the capping of rent increases.
- A response from young people that exceeded even the most optimistic expectations, as this historically under-registered and under-engaged group turned out to vote for Labour in record numbers.
- The belated emergence of a solidly oppositional, reactive and effective social media presence into the British political arena, so much so that where the Sun once boasted it won elections for the Tories, that same media now looks a paper tiger, shouting splenetic hate in an echo chamber.
- The visible, palpable collapse of Tory swagger and energy after losing its majority and coming within a whisker of being defeated by a confident socialist opposition.
- That same party’s desperate and unprincipled willingness to endanger the Good Friday Agreement and peace in Northern Ireland in order to prop itself up with a handful of votes from a fringe Unionist party renowned for vicious homophobia.
- The Brexit process thrown into utter chaos, as the government struggles to construct a coherent negotiating strategy, with a cross-party majority in the new Parliament pushing for a “soft Brexit” that retains access to the European Single Market.
- A terrible fire ripping through a local council tower block in a poor area of the richest borough in the country, Kensington and Chelsea. A fire that could have been contained had not the council and the arms-length body to which it outsourced estate management used the cheapest and most flammable material to clad the building.
- A horrific (and still rising) death toll of mostly ethnic minority, poor and disabled tenants.
- A brief visit to the scene by Theresa May in which she met senior fire and police officials but failed to meet survivors and volunteer workers, in stark contrast to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
- A tsunami of outrage and bad publicity descending on May’s head, a massive, irrecoverable political blunder that will define her and her premiership.
- Corbyn’s call for the requisitioning of the many vacant properties in the borough, left empty as investments by rich or non-domiciled residents, and wide-spread popular support for this policy.
- The cold, indifferent response from the council to survivors, leaving them for days on the floor of local churches and sports centres, failing to co-ordinate emergency collections, failing to inform those put into hotels of other relief, or provide food beyond a free breakfast.
- Massive anger sweeping the local community, resulting in the storming and occupation of Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall. At the same time, a spontaneous mass march on Downing St to demand May resign and justice be done for the survivors.
- Labour calling for a million-person march to overturn a failing and bankrupt government. Labour now six points ahead in the polls, with Corbyn vastly more popular than May.
- Corbyn’s astonishing appearance at Glastonbury as thousands of festival goers chant his name and he delivers a blast of pure socialist passion, concluding with Shelley’s “Masque of Anarchy” to rapturous applause.
Even worse from the perspective of the Tories and the professional hucksters of neoliberalism, is that this is now widely perceived as the tip of an iceberg. The iceberg itself – the very history of Britain since 1979, decades of privatisation, deregulation and neglect of the social infrastructure on which working-class citizens rely – is now there for all to see, to comprehend and to condemn. The harsh, brutal truths of modern Britain are punching through into the collective consciousness, burnt into the mass mind as rapidly and spectacularly as Grenfell Tower:
- That the previous Tory Prime Minister David Cameron said in 2012 that he wished to “kill off the health and safety culture for good”.
- That 317 Tories last year voted against Labour legislation requiring all rented accommodation to be “fit for human habitation”, preventing that law; that 72 of these were private landlords with a direct vested financial interest in ensuring it did not pass.
- That Tory Mayor of London Boris Johnson, now May’s Foreign Secretary, closed ten London fire stations in 2014 with the loss of 552 firefighters’ jobs. That when challenged on this by London Authority Labour leader Andrew Dismore in the Council Chamber, Johnson told him to “get stuffed”.
- That Teresa May’s new Chief of Staff, Gavin Barwell, when Minister for Housing, disregarded and side-lined recommendations of an earlier report, arising from a council block fire which killed six people, on installing sprinkler systems in tower blocks.
- That Kensington and Chelsea Council outsourced the running of the estate to KCTMO, a “not-for-profit” organization that managed to spread £650,000 a year profit around four “directors”, whilst ignoring the residents it was supposed to serve.
- That it added flammable cladding to Grenfell Tower primarily to enhance the view from nearby luxury private apartments, and that it used the cheapest, most unsafe method available.
- That the residents’ Grenfell Tower Action Group, after years of fruitless campaigning for basic safety measures, warned in a blog post of November 2016 that a fire was inevitable, and called KCTMO a “mini-mafia” unfit to run a large social housing estate.
- That immediately after spending fifteen minutes at the scene of the fire, avoiding the victims, May spent an hour at a social occasion for high-value Tory party donors.
- That two days after the fire the Tory leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council blamed Grenfell Tower residents themselves for the lack of sprinklers, claiming they had rejected them because of “disruption”.
- That the amount of money provided for the residents’ resettlement – £5 million – is pitifully inadequate, and there are no guarantees to rehouse the survivors within the borough. That despite rehousing some survivors in “luxury” flats (where they are denied the same facilities as the private residents) many more are being moved outside the borough, and at least thirty survivors forcibly relocated to Birmingham against their will.
- That the final death toll is likely to exceed 200, and the knowledge of this, from the first days after the fire, has been kept back by either D-Notice or the mainstream media’s unforced compliance with the state’s requirements.
These truths can never be expunged. Working-class people across the country have had a brutal lesson in how much our social and political elite – the ruling class and its functionaries at all levels – care about them and their lives. The political implications are as incendiary as the fire itself.
The ingredients now exist for a fundamental challenge to the structures of power and wealth in this country. A principled democratic socialist now stands in firm control of the Labour Party. All polls indicate that if the election were run now, Labour would win. Core socialist policies are now seen as viable, realistic, even vital to the salvation of a country that has failed, has turned in on itself, has let its schools, hospitals and social housing go to ruin to satisfy the acquisitive greed and cruelty of a privileged elite, has denied social and economic justice for so long it can barely remember what they are.
The Tories and their satraps have literally no idea how this has happened, or how to control it. For them, the residents of Grenfell Tower are as remote as starving Ethiopians, the fire an exotic, terrible tragedy that was, at most, worthy of personal sympathy (although one should never underestimate how cold and shriveled the Tory soul really is, clutching only to its lifestyle and privileges, barely able to fake empathy let alone experience it). But ordinary people – the mass of working-class and decent middle-class people who retain older and more collective values, whose lives intersect with those less fortunate, or who came from poorer beginnings and have not forgotten it—can and do understand it. They understand it viscerally, emotionally, in their blood and bones.
Times come in the history of nations when social revolution, however defined, becomes possible, real, tangible, desired. It usually takes disaster and tragedy and injustice to bring it about. In 1940, when Britain’s ruling class had led the country to near terminal disaster, and as Nazi bombs devastated the East End, George Orwell wrote in The Lion and the Unicorn that England (by which he meant England, Scotland and Wales), would resist, would win, and on the ruins would build a better, fairer and more democratic society. “But England has got to be true to herself”, he wrote. “It is not being true while refugees who have sought our shores are locked up in concentration camps and company directors work out subtle schemes to dodge their Excess Profits Tax.”
With the Brexit vote, the murder of Jo Cox, the upsurge in hate crimes, the retreat into provincial nationalism, many British leftists, progressives and internationalists had despaired of any political advance, let alone a radical, transformative one. But these are astonishing times. Concluding Lion, Orwell wrote of the English Socialist revolution he wished to see, “We must add to our heritage or lose it; we must grow greater or grow less; we must go forward or backward”. At this moment – surprisingly, incredibly, inspiringly, on the back of terrible tragedy, corporate crime and the political errors of our ruling elite–England is going forward. The election was the first seismic shock. The fire the second. What had seemed deep-frozen is thawing. The ground is shifting under our feet. The momentum–and the Momentum–is from the left.
Our ruling class will do anything to prevent this. No moral, political or constitutional scruple will apply. May’s casual indifference to the Good Friday Agreement, with the possibility that the Troubles could resume, vividly demonstrates that. The Mail’s attempts to scapegoat immigrants, or environmental standards, for the fire, while the dead were still being counted, demonstrates it again. The cancellation of next years’ Queen’s Speech, the biggest and most important event on the Parliamentary calendar and the means by which a British government proves its legitimacy, demonstrates it beyond doubt.
It is impossible to predict where this is going. May could be gone soon. But all alternatives are equally problematic for the Tories. Boris Johnson is a buffoon with many skeletons in his closet. Amber Rudd has a tiny majority in her local constituency, and is not guaranteed to be re-elected in the next General Election. David Davis is a Hard Brexiter, when the majority of the country wants a soft Brexit. The Tories are likes rats in a trap, with options narrowing.
None of the professional commentariat, on left and right, saw this coming. Like the shocked firefighter when he first saw the towering inferno of Grenfell on the horizon – immediately aware that tall modern residential blocks should not burn like that – they are reeling, asking “How the fuck is that even possible?” It is a question that hangs over modern Britain, with its Brexit crisis, election earthquake and political dysfunction. It is a question asked by Tories whose fear is now palpable.
And while they fear, we hope. Hope, and organise. As Mark Fisher wrote in the conclusion of Capitalist Realism (and if only that prescient and tragic writer could have lived long enough to see these times), “From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again”.
John Medhurst is the author of That Option No Longer Exists: Britain 1974-76 (Zero, 2014) and No Less Than Mystic: A History of theRussian Revolution for a 21st Century Left, forthcoming from Repeater in August 2017 .
In a sense, Theresa May has done the left a great service by calling an early election. Had she not done so, and had the war of attrition between Corbyn’s enclave and the overwhelmingly hostile Labour right had continued until 2020, momentum, and indeed Momentum, would have dissipated, Corbyn would have got old and fatigued, another leadership election would have been on the cards and we would have ended up with a compromise candidate, an Owen Smith light, if such insubstantiality were even attainable in physical form. The popularity, or otherwise, of Corbyn and a manifesto that could only have been drawn up from the left of the party, only emerged through a Momentum/Corbyn/McDonnell axis, would never have been publically tried. We would never have had a surge in young people registering to vote, never have had the opportunity for a broadly social democratic project to have access to the media or tour the country holding rallies, we wouldn’t have had a groundswell of grassroots’ participation. Most importantly, perhaps, the general public wouldn’t have had any kind of unmediated access to Corbyn himself.
Something evident in both leadership campaigns was that this is where Corbyn thrives. The opportunity to go out and meet the public delights him, even across the course of this campaign he appears to have become physically more robust and energetic, looks better, seems to have grown younger, in marked contrast to May, who appears more grim, grizzled, brittle and embattled the longer it goes on. Where the agent of capital is a veritable Grey Vampire surrounded by wizened acolytes, repeating the same diminished incantations over and over in airless rooms, Corbyn feeds off democratic energies, amplifying them and returning them to the crowd. His charisma derives from this, it is in a sense borrowed charisma, the democratic charisma that results from being a conduit, a listener, a collaborator, a leader in a different mode, one who helps to articulate a common set of struggles, oppositions and needs . As a vessel for others, he is restored, replenished, it’s not energy taken, dim parcels of fear and resignation grudgingly extruded, but energy freely given and it lends Corbyn his saintly air—he is also elevated by this process, takes on something beatific, joyful; this is what we mean when we say a man of the people.
Corbyn’s standing for Labour leader, then, was an enormous serendipity, one that his supporters have understood and wisely refused to allow the centrists to crush. Finding any adequate substitute will be hard and, come what may on Thursday, any move to replace him has to be resisted,. A Corbynism without Corbyn may be possible but it won’t be attained by a focus-group obsessed soundbiter in a nice suit; the era of the professional PPE parachuted-in politician is definitively over, because the era of the Goldilocks economy, in which they rolled up their shirt sleeves once every five years to give the economy a little tweak up or down a degree no longer exists, nor is it coming back.
Win or lose this time, the future is forming and it belongs to the left.
Carl Neville is the author of Resolution Way (Repeater, 2016)